Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at 25: Closing Roundtable
Ericka Beckman

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

[On February 8, 2013 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory held its spring symposium "Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at 25.” Below are remarks by closing roundtable participant, Ericka Beckman (Spanish, Italian & Portuguese/Comparative & World Literature)]

Written by Ericka Beckman (Spanish, Italian & Portuguese/Comparative & World Literature)

Closing Roundtable from left to right: Greenberg, Ali, Beckman,
Hansen, & Nelson

I. The persistence of the economic

One of the tendencies that Marxism and Interpretation of Culture sought to correct was the Marxist tradition’s frequent reduction of the cultural to the status of the epiphenomenal. The essays in this volume, drawing from Marxist thinkers like Gramsci and Althusser, as well as from poststructuralist theories of language, proposed ways of integrating culture into Marxist analysis. Twenty-five years after the publication of this milestone volume, in times of unprecedented capitalist crisis, the power of the economic seems to have returned with a vengeance (if it had ever waned). In this context, we are forced to renew our engagement with questions of political economy. At the same time, the ontological questions lurking within the value form acquire renewed urgency. How is it possible for trillions of dollars in fictitious capitals to arise and disappear in the course of a financial crisis? These questions, of course are not unique to our own era. One of Marx’s key insights was that the value of commodities and money in capitalist societies is simultaneously objective and immaterial, creating real relations between people that take on the distorted appearance of a relationships between things. Then as now, the economic is not the site of incontrovertible reality, but a site of representation and interpretive struggle, an insight that is perhaps best grasped from within the conjuncture of widespread capitalist crisis. In our present, it feels as though we have never been more subjected to the dynamics of capital, while at the same time the flimsiness of economic science seems never to have been more readily apparent.

In a different vein, our traditional understandings of ‘the economic’ might need to be revised for times of unrelenting capitalist crisis. Classical Marxist analysis, of course, posited that what made capitalism different from non-capitalist social formations (such as feudalism, for example) was that domination took on a non-coercive form. Of course, violence and coercion have always been integral to capital accumulation, in ongoing waves of “primitive accumulation,” or what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession." In the present age of permanent crisis, war, and state of exception, it seems that coercion has taken on an even more prominent role in accumulation, and that it will continue to do so in the future (Here I am thinking especially of Gopal Balakrishnan’s essay on the stationary state). Hence we should think about what it means to live in an era in which economic relations become increasingly diffuse and pernicious, while at the same time buttressed by increasingly violent forms of state power.

II. The persistence of the ‘Third World’/Global South

Laura Chrisman brought up the relative absence of the Third World in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (with the notable exception of Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”), and the complete absence of African histories intellectuals. Other papers today have also remarked on the continued marginalization on non-Western histories and contexts within Marxist debate, and provide us with different ways of approaching this problem. David Kazanjian, for example, argues that texts written by social agents in Liberia or Mexico, usually treated as instances of “the concrete” in opposition to “the universal” of high (European) theory, should themselves be read as attempts to theorize the very meaning of freedom. Shu-Mei Shih boldly charts narrative “arcs” (the plantation, the global 60s) unstructured by Euro- and U.S.-centric literary canons to uncover new relations between far-flung people and places. Laura Chrisman advocates that we turn to the literature of the Comintern, read within the framework of uneven and combined development, as a healthy countermeasure against the commodification of postcolonial studies.

The question of Global South in Marxist theory seems especially important today, as Tariq O. Ali remarked, because of the triumphalist discourses of capital emanating from countries such as India, China and Brazil. It very well might be that in these countries there is a sense that capitalism is on the rise, and not in decline, although I do not doubt that bust will follow boom sooner or later. It is still worth noting, though, that this is perhaps the first time that capitalism can be grasped as “healthy” in a country like Brazil, in contrast with the United States. With this apparent reversal of accepted reality, it’s too early to tell if we are witnessing a real historical shift or just a blip on the screen on the longue durĂ©e.

III. Crisis

This brings me to a final word about crisis. Writing of the Mexican peso debacle of 1982, the anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz refers to “present saturation” as one consequence of crisis, “characterized by a reluctance to socialize viable and desirable images of a future.” I would say that our crisis-ridden present is likewise marked by a sense of saturation, in which we are aware –sometimes sharply, sometimes dimly—of the catastrophic consequences of capitalist globalization, and yet reluctant or unable “to socialize viable and desirable images of the future.” And yet there is reason for hope. Even Forbes magazine, no organ of the Left, seems to understand that new vocabularies and imaginaries are being forged: “If the Occupy movement does nothing else, it has at least introduced a new set of terms into the American vocabulary to talk about the distribution of wealth in America. Until recently, most average people had no idea how wealth was distributed in the country; most people had a vague idea of a wealthy minority, but they rarely grasped the full extent of income disparity between classes." The shift in words and ideas permitted by Occupy Wall Street, the Chilean students’ movement, and the Arab "Spring" just may help us imagine new forms of social life beyond capitalism. The promise of the imagination—as expressed in different social expressions ranging from social movements to art—is one of the lasting insights of Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, twenty-five years after its publication.


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Anonymous said...

Sounds wonderful. Too bad I couldn't be there for the last part of the symposium. I just wanted to say one thing about the so called Global South. I don't like the category because it informs the issue of struggles in deceptively geographical terms. After all, what most of the people who are still inspired by Marxism learned from postcolonial theory is that "postcolonial" can be interpellated (Althusser) as a symptom of the cultural, economic, social dis-homogeneization of the ex-colonialist states. Categories like Eurocentric and Global South, in my opinion, bring us back to the 20th century, and to its dreams of nationalist homogeneity, in a world that requires new theory. As much as we love the Comintern...

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